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Training Up: Repetition is the Key to Perfection

A team’s success is as much a reflection on its coaches as its players. 

Former England women’s assistant coach Craig Keegan takes this responsibility very seriously. Having trained some of the top players in the world, including the Gold Medal Rio squad, he knows the importance of a progressive training approach that supports each player’s unique skill set and learning tendencies. 

His approach is simple, but tough, demanding patience and perseverance in pursuit of perfection. He breaks every new skill or tactic into three phases before implementing in-game — a practice he says is rooted in his early days as a player. 

Craig Keegan pictured coaching the Team England squad.

“As a young athlete, I loved training almost as much as playing,” says Coach Keegan. “I always enjoyed repetitious drills to develop new skills. I didn’t know it, but I was already building my coaching framework back then.”

Keegan’s philosophy is that every athlete develops different skills at a different pace — and it’s not his job to change that. It’s his job — and, theoretically, every coach’s job — to create structures and processes that empower each athlete to grow at their own pace. That’s exactly what the phases are designed to do. 

Team England's Alex Danson hits the gym for a workout. Photo credit: @alexdanson15.

He first used the three-phase approach with Great Britain’s U21 girls division in 2013, in preparation for a tour to Sydney. Seeing the enthusiastic response from the players, he continued to refine the strategy, eventually taking it to Rio and bringing home the gold medal as an assistant coach with the GB women’s squad. 

Here’s a look inside Coach Keegan’s Olympic-winning three-phase strategy for athlete development:

Phase 1: Skill acquisition — Below match intensity

What’s the old saying — you’ve got to walk before you can run? Phase 1 is the “walking” stage of Keegan’s approach: skill acquisition through repetition and constraint led Small Sided Games (SSG). Practice the movement until it becomes second nature, completely giving your mind and body over to the motion, and you’ll learn to perfect every line and angle without the interference of high-level contact. 

In Action: Keegan says he’s keen to see athletes use a split grip when close to the goal. How would this look in Phase 1? Start with unopposed passing and shooting using the split grip technique. Keep a slow, even pace, repetition after repetition. Then, gradually quicken the pace and deliver shots from different angles, adding more repetition in the quest for perfection.

Phase 2: Skill integration — Match intensity

Now it’s time to run. In Phase 2, players incorporate their newly developed skill or tactic at “match tempo,” as Keegan calls it. The stakes are higher and players face some level of opposition, in conditions designed to more closely simulate the intensity and competition of a real game.  

In Action: Incentivize players to find opportunities to use the split grip in an in-game scenario. This could look like facilitating an SSG where players get double points for passing or scoring using the split grip. 

Phase 3: Skill elevation — Above match intensity

If Phase 2 is track running, Phase 3 is sprinting with hurdles. In this stage, players work to develop and hone their performance under pressure. For Keegan, this phase is about applying constraints and testing the players’ ability to react to the intense environment they’ll face in a tournament setting.

In Action: Add pressure to the split grip SSG by restricting the time an athlete is allowed to possess the ball before they make a play, or introduce additional physical challenges to fatigue the athlete.

GB Rio squad member Shona McCallin hits the pitch for a training session with the STX Surgeon RX 901.

"Good athletes will always challenge why we do things this way," Keegan says. "But when it comes to skill acquisition, generating tactical awareness, and improving physical capacity, this framework offers a consistent approach to develop all areas."

“The athletes I’ve worked with really love it, because it enables them to work at their pace while learning new skills, but also tests and stretches them under pressure.”

The takeaway? 

If you’re a player, lean into your coach’s strategy and ask questions for a better understanding of the “why,” so you can continue to hone your skill on your own. Remember each phase is an important part of the whole package and to trust the process.

As a coach, keep in mind that every athlete develops at a different pace. Reinforce the power of repetition and take your time. Don’t rush athletes from Phase 1 to Phase 2 if what they really need is more repetition. Don’t hold back those who’ve mastered the basics by keeping them on the same path as someone who requires more time. This is a fluid coaching style — the phases aren't set. They flex and adapt to support and challenge both the individual athlete and the team. Design your training sessions with the outcome in mind. If you have a clear understanding of what each session’s goal is, the phases will be easier to map. 

GB Rio squad member Shona McCallin reflects on her journey back from concussion and celebrating the small victories.

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Want to chat with Craig about the phase approach? Connect with him on Twitter at @cc_keegan.